social alientation is experienced as physical pain

June 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

A revelation after talking to Brother1 last evening. I had finally reached the point of critical mass where the pain of not talking overrode my fear of talking and I called Brother1. I explained to him that I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and what a trigger is, how an emotional flashback occurs. I then described my experience to him from our short visit the evening before and how I had been triggered into the emotional pain of the event from the year before.

To Brother1’s credit, he listened and we had a fruitful discussion.

The most important point that came out of the discussion was a situation that I realize now we both find very painful. He revealed to me that he has felt angry toward me for shutting him out of my life. I understand how he could perceive my behaviour as shutting him out. Over the decades I have gone through numerous permutations of trying to remove myself from this family because I found it too emotionally painful and psychologically damaging to try to remain part of it. However, I had to make the distinction between my need to remove myself from the family and his perception that I was shutting him out. What I was doing was shutting down my connection to the family because I could not tolerate the mental and emotional condition of the family. My membership in the family took such a profound mental and emotional toll on my psychological, emotional and financial well-being that I had to remove myself to save myself. What he was interpreting as shutting him out was me shutting down because I could not sustain my connection to the family.

This morning I came across a surprising connection between the neural alarm system for physical and social pain (“Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain” Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 8, Issue 7, July 2004, Pages 294–300). Eisenberger and Lieberman point out that numerous languages characterize ‘social pain’, the feelings resulting from social estrangement, with words typically reserved for describing physical pain (‘broken heart’, ‘broken bone’). They show how the social-attachment system in mammals borrows the computations of the pain system to prevent the potentially harmful consequences of social separation. They report that there is mounting evidence that physical and social pain overlap in their underlying neural circuitry and computational processes. I know this pain first hand, and now it seems, I realize my siblings also have been feeling this pain.

Ever since the early 1970s, when Father told me he was leaving Mother (and me and my four younger brothers, my older sister had already left for school in Europe) I have been struggling to re-attach to my family. In that instant that Father told me that, it was like my world collapsed. I was devastated. Mother was in a state of deep mental illness, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Father was leaving me as eldest, at home with a parent who was not only unable to cope with taking care of us children, but was also a danger to others, as she had attacked strangers and neighbours with her fists and with a brick. As a child, I was already coping with extreme trauma from my mother’s mental illness. My father’s news struck me as a catastrophic abandonment. Later I was to learn that he was having an affair at the time, and he went on to marry his mistress. This news compounded my emotional and psychological pain, as I felt profoundly betrayed by my father. I no longer trusted him to put my interests first, to protect me, or to guide me in life. I felt orphaned two times over.

To cope with these overwhelming feelings I shut down, I collapsed, first into food and exercise addiction, then into romance and sex addiction, and last, into drug addiction. I was gone for 20+ years, until I returned in 1996 after a stint in recovery. As I tried to pick up the pieces of my life, I also tried to re-connect with my siblings. In the intervening 18 years I have tried repeatedly to rebuild my relationships with my siblings and my parents and I have been frustrated and discouraged in turns.

At this moment I feel a glimmer of hope, of understanding the forces that have been driving the attitudes and behaviour in my family. I can see how hurtful it is to feel shut out of family, I have been feeling this way for years! But I can also see how my behaviour has also been interpreted as shutting out. And although no one has talked to me about it, no one has called to discuss my behaviour with me, to share their feelings or thoughts, to attempt to repair our damaged connections, I think I can see, at least, how that situation has been perpetuated through lack of communication and lack of understanding.

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